Fiction 6 min read

The Writer

First published in The Petersburg Gazette, 1885

In a room adjoining a tea shop belonging to a merchant named Yershakov, behind a tall desk sat Yershakov himself, a young man, fashionably dressed, but a little unkempt and, it appears, a man who had led a boisterous life in his day. Judging by his sweeping handwriting, decorated with flourishes, his hairstyle à la Capoul and the smell of fine cigars, he was no stranger to European civilization. But he began to smell even more of culture when a boy entered from the shop and informed him:

“The writer is here!”

“Ah!… Call him in. And tell him to leave his galoshes in the shop.”

A minute later, a graying, balding old man in a threadbare terracotta overcoat quietly entered the little room. He had a reddish, frostnipped face with an expression of weakness and hesitancy that one typically sees in people who drink constantly, even small quantities.

“Ah, how do you do…” said Yershakov without taking a look at the man who had just entered. “Anything good, Mr. Geinim?”

Yerhsakov mixed up the words “genius” and “Geine,” and they merged for him into the single “Geinim,” and that was what he always called the old man.1

“Well, sir, I’ve brought the little commission,” answered Geinim. “It’s ready.”

“So soon?”

“Zakhar Semyonich, in three days one can write a novel, not just an ad. For an ad, an hour is enough.”

“That’s it? And you’re always haggling as if you’re taking on a year’s worth of work. Alright, let’s see what you’ve got.”

Geinim took out several crumpled pieces of paper covered with pencil writing and walked towards the little desk.

“It’s still a draft, sir, a general outline…” he said. “I’ll read it to you, and you have a listen and tell me if you find a mistake. It’s not hard to make a mistake, Zakhar Semyonich… Would you believe it? I’ve been working on ads for three shops at once… Even Shakespeare’s head would spin.”

Geinim put on his glasses, raised his eyebrows and began to read in a sad voice, as if he was declaiming:

“‘The season of 1885–86. Supplier of Chinese teas to all the cities of European and Asiatic Russia and abroad, Z. S. Yershakov. Company established in 1804.’ All this is an introduction, you see, it will be surrounded by ornaments, amid the coats of arms. When I was composing an ad for this one merchant, he used the coats of arms of various cities for a notice like this. You can do this too, and I’ve come up with the following ornament for you, Zakhar Semyonich: a lion with a lyre in his teeth. Now further: ‘A couple of words to our customers. Dear sirs! Neither the political events of recent times, nor the cold indifference that is spreading more and more through all the strata of our society, nor the shallowing of the Volga, which has so recently been pointed out by the best part of our press—nothing disturbs us. The long-lasting existence of our company and the loyalty we have won give us the opportunity to keep our ground and never betray the system that we have set up once and for all with equal regard to both our relationship with the owners of tea plantations and our conscientious fulfillment of orders. Our motto is well known. It is expressed in words that are few but full of meaning: conscientiousness, bargain prices and speed!!’”

“Good! Very good!” interrupted Yershakov, shifting in his chair. “I didn’t even expect it to be so good. Skillful! Only one thing though, my dear friend… we need to add a bit of ambiguity, make it a little bit hazy somehow, you know, to play a trick… We say here that the company had only just received a batch of fresh first-class spring teas for the 1885 season… Right? But we must also indicate that these teas that we’ve just received have been lying in our warehouse already for three years, but, at the same time, it must be as if we had received them from China only last week.”

“I understand, sir… The public won’t even notice the contradiction. At the beginning of the notice we’ll say that the teas had only just arrived, but in the end we’ll say: ‘Having a large supply of teas on which previous duty rates had been paid, we are able to sell them at previous years’ prices without incurring a loss… etc.’ Now then, on the following page we’ll have the price list. Here again we’ll have the coats of arms and ornaments… Under them, in large type: ‘Price list for select aromatic Fuchan, Kyakhta, and loose leaf teas of the first spring harvest, received from newly acquired plantations’… Next: ‘Let us draw the attention of true tea lovers to Lansing teas, of which the most deservedly loved is “The Chinese Emblem, or The Envy of Competitors” 3 r. 50 k. From the rose teas we especially recommend “The Bogdykhan Rose” 2 r. and “The Chinese Maiden’s Eyes” 1 r. 80 k.’ After the prices we’ll have the fine print about postage and packaging. Here also we’ll mention discounts and special offers: ‘The majority of our competitors use special offers as bait to attract customers. For our part we protest against such distasteful methods and offer our customers all the enticements with which our competitors attract their prey not as a special offer, but free of charge. Everyone who spends over 50 r. with us gets to choose and receive, free of charge, one of the following five things: a kettle of British metal, a hundred calling cards, a plan of the city of Moscow, a tea caddy in the form of a nude Chinese maiden, and a book titled ‘The Astonished Groom, or The Bride Under the Trough,’ a tale by the Merry Humorist.”

Having finished his reading and having made a number of corrections, Geinim quickly rewrote a new copy of the ad and presented it to Yershakov. And then there was silence… Both felt uneasy, as if they had committed something vile.

“Am I to be paid for the work now or later?” asked Geinim hesitatingly.

“Whenever you like, right now even…” casually answered Yershakov. “Go into the shop and take five and half ruble’s worth of whatever you like.”

“I’d prefer it in cash, Zakhar Semyonich.”

“It’s not my custom to pay in cash. I pay everyone in tea and sugar: you, and the choristers, whom I lead, and the janitors. Less drunkenness.”

“But Zakhar Semyonich, can you really compare my work to that of janitors and choristers? Mine is an intellectual labor.”

“What labor! You sit down, you write, and that’s all there is to it. You can’t eat a piece of writing, can’t drink it… it’s trivial stuff! Not worth a ruble.”

“Hmm… What an opinion you have of writing…” Geinim took offense. “Can’t eat it, can’t drink it. What you don’t understand is that while I was composing the ad I may have suffered with my soul. As you write you feel that you’re deceiving all of Russia. Give me money, Zakhar Semyonich!”

“Enough, friend. It’s not right to pester me like this.”

“Well, fine then. I’ll take it in sugar. Your lads will then take it back from me for eight kopeks a pound. This operation will cost me about forty kopeks, but what can one do! Have a good day, sir!”

Geinim turned to walk out but stopped by the door, sighed and said mournfully: “I’m deceiving Russia! All of Russia! Deceiving my fatherland for a piece of bread! Ah!”

And he left. Yershakov lit a Havana, and his room was filled with an even stronger smell of a cultured man.

  1. Translator’s note: the Russian word for genius is “гений,” pronounced ghe-niy, which sounds a little like the actual name of the writer in the story (“Geine,” pronounced with a hard “g”). The name “Geinim” (“Гейним”) appears to originate from Chekhov’s brother Alexander, who sometimes used it in his letters to Anton.